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The Signature of All Things: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 1, 2013
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2013: As a small girl, Elizabeth Gilbert scrawled her name in the most extraordinary book in her house: an original illustrated folio of Captain Cook’s voyages. Decades later, her parents discovered her signature and gave her the book, reigniting her passion for scientific exploration in the century leading up to Darwin’s theory of evolution. She became fascinated with the women—always wives or daughters of scientists—who made their own discoveries, in spite of the cultural constraints that kept them from true exploration. Her invented heroine, the insatiably curious Alma Whittaker, daughter of a scrappy botanical baron, spends most of her life confined to her family estate in Philadelphia, yearning for a life of greater passion and liberty. She channels her desires into botany, thrilling to the miniature universe of moss in the forests surrounding her house, developing a new taxonomy that becomes a theory encompassing all living things, parallel to Darwin’s. When she finally turns herself loose on the world, it’s to claim her place in a lineage of explorers. An earthy, elegant, deeply sensual novel of daring breadth and imagination, The Signature of All Things gives us the cosmos in the life of one woman, in her worlds within worlds. –Mari Malcolm
*Starred Review* Gilbert, the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006), returns to fiction with her first novel in 13 years, and what a novel it is! Taking her sweet time and digressing at will into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she tells the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. Born to Henry Whittaker, “the richest man in Philadelphia,” who rose from his station as the son of a lowly gardener to an import tycoon, Alma has the benefit of wealth and books, spending hours learning Latin and Greek and studying the natural world. But her plain appearance and erudition seem to foretell a lonely life until she meets gifted artist Ambrose Pike. Their intense intellectual connection results in marriage, but Ambrose’s deep but unorthodox spiritual beliefs prevent them from truly connecting. Alma, who has never traveled out of Philadelphia, embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Tahiti to Holland, during which she learns much about the ways of the world and her own complicated nature. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The publisher is pulling out all the stops for the high-profile author, including both print and online campaigns and an author tour; Gilbert’s celebrity may also draw off-the-book-page interest. --Joanne Wilkinson
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This is why I was surprised down to my socks when I gobbled the first 300 pages of this book down like a giant bucket of popcorn at the movies. I couldn't believe this book had been penned by the same author as Eat, Love, Pray. The writing was robust, the characters were compelling, the storyline riveting and most of all, there was a historical and educational richness that made you feel like you were getting smarter and smarter with every page you turned. In this way, Gilbert's novel reminded me of the historical fiction by authors James Michener and Leon Uris. I had even started imagining my critique to my reading group that would include such accolades as "one of my favorite books of all time."
Not so fast. Around page 300 I hit the skids with this book and hit them big. The reading went from sailing through chapter after chapter with the wind at my back on a sea of glass, to slogging my way through each page as if I were hip deep in a muddy bog with three bags of groceries in my arms. My sense is that Gilbert ran out of steam. In some ways, the story deflated slowly, as with the fortunes and foibles of some of the main characters, but mostly, there was a sudden shift in tone, storyline, and even the style of writing. I swear it seemed like a different person took over the writing of the last 200 pages. The longer that this workman-like writing and irksome plot continued, the angrier I got that the author had taken me to the celestial heights of reading pleasure, only to drop me to the dark depths of reading despair. Okay, that was a little dramatic, but you get my point. I wish Ms. Gilbert's editors had applied as firm a hand to the end of the book, as they did at the beginning.
Now, once and for all, I am done with Elizabeth Gilbert (unless, of course, she shows up on my doorstep and politely asks me to read her next book and then I certainly will.) :-)
Final note: almost everyone else in my reading group felt the same way I did. There were a couple of people who didn't like the book from the start, but for those who did, their feelings had changed drastically by the end.